Why the Right should hate “Waiting for Superman”

by David Safier

I finally forced myself to watch "Waiting for Superman," the documentary that basically trashes teachers' unions and sings the praises of charter schools. Writing about education isn't all beer and skittles, after all. Sometimes I need to read and watch things I know will annoy me.

As a logical argument, the film is incoherent. It tries to cover too much ground in too little time, so it has a habit of playing fast and loose with its facts and conclusions.

But knowing the Right is singing the praises of the film, I have to ask, Why? If you look into the three schools the film spotlights as examples of educational success, you find all of them spend far more money per student than public schools, and 2 out of 3 believe you can't improve education for disadvantaged kids without dealing with their out-of-school environments. Conservatives are trying to sell the idea you can educate students for less money without worrying about the homes and neighborhoods they come from. Just throw 40 kids in a room with a great teacher, conservatives say, and learning will skyrocket. The three schools give the lie to conservative educational theory.

Let's look at the three schools "Waiting for Superman" focuses on.

1. The Harlem Children's Zone. The school spends about $16,000 per student in the classroom on top of thousands more outside of the classroom. The kids get medical, dental and mental health services. They get special, nutritious cafeteria meals. Parents get food baskets, meals and bus fares. The school is in session 11 months, has longer school days and gives the kids tutoring when they need it. And still, though the students outscore similar students on standardized tests, the increases aren't huge.

2. SEED School of Washington: This is a public boarding school. It spends about $35,000 per student. The kids are taken out of their homes and have 24 hour adult supervision as well as medical and mental health services and a variety of enrichment programs. [I haven't seen a scholarly analysis of student achievement at SEED, so I can't say how well the kids do.]

3. KIPP: Unlike the first two schools, KIPP is the umbrella for a number of schools across the country, and it doesn't offer services beyond the school-based education. Still, KIPP schools spend about $6,500 more per student than traditional public schools in the region, for things like small class sizes, longer school hours, longer school years as well as added tutoring and enrichment. The schools also have a very high turnover rate, because so many students and their families can't live up to the demands the school puts on the children. Those who stay through graduation do very well academically, but the attrition rates make it impossible to create head-to-head comparisons of its students' achievement with students at other schools.

To sum up: All three schools spend far more per student than all those "wasteful" district schools. The students get smaller classes and far more individual attention. Two of the schools have the philosophy that you have to change the students' lives out of school before you can expect them to perform well in school. More money. Smaller classes. More personal attention. Improving social conditions. That all sounds pretty liberal to me.

Then there is one of the heroes of the film, Michelle Rhee. She's portrayed as a hero because, as D.C. superintendent, she stood up to the big, bad unions, reformed D.C. schools and got results from the students. I have a feeling the filmmaker would like to cut some of the praise he heaped on Rhee based on recent reporting indicating there was a whole lot of cheating on student tests to inflate scores during her watch. Rhee knew about the allegations but kept them quiet. She stood up to the unions, all right, but the effectiveness of her "reforms" are now seriously in doubt.

You could make a second film using the same three schools, demonstrating how much money and effort goes into creating schools that boost achievement for disadvantaged kids, and even then, the boosts are  encouraging but not miraculous. Working title: "Superman Only Exists in Comic Books."

When it comes to education, don't hope for miracles. Spend the money. Do the thinking, planning and just plain hard work. Try your damndest to give kids the best education you can. Then come back the next day and try even harder.

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